In the yard of a house in Stok Prey village, in Takeo province, an audience gathers around a stage as a woman plays the chapey. The performance is a ruse of a sort – an excuse to get villagers to gather to confront a seldom discussed topic in rural areas: homosexuality.
As part of the Village Rainbow LIFE exhibition, the performance is one of several put on by homosexual couples from provinces all over the Kingdom, in an effort to show the diversity of talents and backgrounds of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community in the provinces.
This is the third year the provincial awareness event is being held. Hosted by lesbian couple Sok Yun, 62, and Sem Eang,63, in their home in Trapeang Sab commune in Bati district, the event on May 13 was part of a larger initiative by local human rights NGO CamASEAN to make LGBTIQ issues more visible in rural areas.
The events feature a photo exhibition, talks by LGBTIQ couples from around the country, and in some cases the testimonies of relatives and even religious figures.
Many of the couples speaking at the event have been together for more than a decade and take care of adopted children. The idea is that showing positive examples of family units such as these serves to quell parents’ fears of their homosexual children being unable to have “proper” families, not having grandchildren, or being unable to provide for them in their old age.
According to Srun Srorn, activist and founder of CamASEAN, many members of the LGBTIQ community face discrimination in the provinces, where lack of understanding about homosexuality means it is often decried as a mental illness, or even a sign of spiritual possession.
“That’s why when I work across the country, the majority of the issues is they send their children to kru khmer, traditional psychologists or traditional doctors. They think they can cure their children from being homosexual to being hetero-,” he says.
LGBTIQ people sometimes have their freedom restricted by their parents, who confiscate their motorcycles and phones and prevent them from going to school or work, or are beaten. In a 2013 study of social exclusion of LGBTIQs in Cambodia by the Cambodian Social Protection Research Fund, 60 percent of the 149 respondents reported having experienced some form of domestic violence.
Many are also subject to name-calling and bullying from their friends and relatives. As a result of such discrimination, some LGBTIQs drop out of school, fall into depression, end up homeless, or commit suicide.
However, not all relatives of LGBTIQs hold the same rigid views towards homosexuality. Srorn says that some parents understand that their children have alternative sexual preferences but push their children into heterosexual marriages due to traditional Cambodians beliefs about family, where children are expected to produce offspring of their own to continue the family line. “Your right is your right, but family is bigger than your right … Children must have more children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That is the value of family,” says Srorn.
Stok Prey villager Pork Yorng, 52, says her niece used to have a girlfriend, but was eventually persuaded by her relatives to marry a man, as she was the only child in her family and her parents wanted grandchildren. “She understood, and now they live together happily and have a child,” she says.
Such views are not limited to Takeo province. Chuk Sopheap, owner of Space Hair Salon and Bar in Phnom Penh, says that he too has received similar comments from relatives back in his hometown of Battambang. “They said, ‘You should get married, you need to have a kid,’” he says.
Yun and Eang, who have been together for 40 years and have raised seven adopted children, are the only lesbian couple in Stok Prey village. While their relationship is currently widely accepted by their families and fellow villagers, they have faced their share of discrimination in the past, such as name-calling, and pressure to separate.
Having met during the Khmer Rouge regime, they fell in love but were greeted with disapproval from Eang’s parents, who arranged for her to marry a man. She rejected the arrangement and the couple then ran away to Battambang in 1986.
However, finding it hard to make a living there, they returned after a month, where Eang was turned away by her family for fear she would steal from them to support Yun. The couple was only accepted by Eang’s family in 1992, after Yun had proven herself to be hardworking, financially independent, and able to provide for Eang.
The attitudes of the villagers have also changed over time, due to observations of the couple’s interactions with each other, and of a growing awareness about homosexuality thanks to such events. The couple, who run a small mini-mart, reported having more business from the villagers after similar events were held in 2015 and 2016, when previously they mainly received patronage from close friends and neighbours.
However, it is clear that more could be done to further the villagers’ understanding of homosexuality. Though Stok Prey residents do not actively discriminate against the couple, they expressed reluctance to accept homosexuality within their own families.
“My granddaughter is 5 months old. If she wants to marry with the same sex and they can be separated, I would do it. But if she really resists and she wants to commit suicide, I would just allow them because I don’t want to see such a tragedy,” says Yorng.
The fact that there is only one lesbian couple in the village also means that villagers’ understanding of homosexuality is limited to their observations of Yun and Eang’s relationship. “Women can live without men, but men can’t live without women … I still believe that men want women and want to have sex with women,” Yorng adds.